Running Backs Coach Craig Johnson -- July 30, 2019
Q: In this era of what people call a “passing league,” how important is the running game, and how critical is that still in today’s game?
A: I still think it’s critical, because you like to have balance. You want to be a balanced offense, so the defense can’t attack just your pass or your run game. Most of the teams that have been successful and have had a chance to win it all, have had a good balance between the run and the pass. I don’t think football will ever go away from the run, even though the emphasis is on the pass.
Q: When you have a special back like Saquon (Barkley), how difficult is that for a defense? How important is that to an overall offense?
A: I think one thing that helps with the passing game is if a lot of eyes are on the back, because they’re concerned about what he’s going to do in the run game. It allows the tight ends and receivers to maybe get better releases in their routes, a little bit more space to work. That’s how the game kind of has become.
Q: Do you want to go into the season with a number two running back? A guy that whenever Saquon needs a blow, it’s going to be the same guy?
A: I can’t make a determination yet. I actually think that’s why you have preseason practices. You want to find out… I like to think that Saquon is going to start, but you want to find out the best guy, or maybe guys, that are going to be able to make that happen. That’s kind of what we’re seeing in the preseason. We’ll determine how much, who, strategy and all that, and carries and all that when we get closer to the season. But right now, we’ve got to try to find the best 53 (players) to give us a chance to win.
Q: How is he different this year, Saquon, from a year ago at this time?
A: I think the single, biggest difference is that he now has been through the year. He understands the grind, what’s going to happen in the preseason. He understands more how defenses are going to attack him. One of the big things he wanted to do is continue to improve his knowledge of defense. So, ‘If a team is playing me this, this is going to probably be our answer, and this is what I have to practice that week.’ Little details like that for a guy that’s going into his second year. Most second-year players go through that. First, they kind of understand the playbook in the first year. In the second year, they go beyond the playbook a little bit and start trying to figure out how to attack defensive personnel.
Q: Do you think he has an understanding that he’s going to be the player defenses try to stop now?
A: I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind because of all the success he had from a year ago. That’s just part of the game. You deal with that. Being the target of a defense, if you have a really good season the year prior, the defenses are geared, and they’re tremendous in the NFL, and they’re going to try to take away what you do best. So, that’s what we’re going to try to work on to keep expanding him, as with all of the backs, to try to be better in all three phases.
Q: Jon Hillman has explosiveness. What is it about his game makes you happy to have him on this roster? What did you see from him in college?
A: I saw a guy that runs very hard, runs behind his pads, and was a good pass-blocker. He could catch the ball. He has shown the same attributes when he’s been here, so that’s been good to see. I’m excited about him. But he’s got to understand that as a young player in college, you’re the focal guy. In the pros, you get limited reps and you really have to shine through. That’s typical of all young players. What I need to continue to see from him is that when he jumps in here, he knows what to do, and he can play fast to catch our attention to see if he can find a way to get on this roster.
Q: Does Wayne Gallman catch the ball well enough? Obviously, it’s a big part of your offense is throwing to the running backs. We know Rod Smith can, Paul Perkins… Does Wayne Gallman do that well enough, or is that an area he needs to improve in?
A: I think that all of the backs, including our starting back, can continue to work on catching the ball. As they know, at the end of the day when it gets right down to the time to try to find the best 53 (players) for your roster… Any back, Wayne included, Eli (Penny), all of our guys have to make sure to continue to work on all phases. We work on those drills, if you watch our drills, all of the time. I would say yes, Wayne needs to get better. Yes, Saquon needs to get better. All of them need to continue to work on that thing, so you can be a back that can stay on the field a little bit longer.
Q: Paul (Perkins) spent last year on injured reserve. What are your impressions of him coming back?
A: I thought in the spring that Paul had a little bit of rust to him, because he’s been away from the game for a little bit. The Perkins I see right now is the Paul Perkins I know. He’s playing well.
Q: Do you have a percentage of time last season that you saw eight men in the box?
A: No. I know our Mr. Stat Man would be able to give you that information. I don’t know that. I do know that because we had a lot of injuries, they played us a little bit different in the second half of the year than they played us in the first half. I’m expecting that (defenses) will be similar to that. But again, the greatest thing that players learn, what Saquon’s thing is, ‘they attacked you this way last year, and now they’re going to attack you this way. How am I going to react to it?’ That’s why he is a relentless film-studier. So, I think that will help him as he prepares for this season.
Q: What was the biggest difference in the second half (of the season) and how they attacked you? Was it eight man boxes?
A: I think they played a little bit more of that because of injuries, and they were going to see if they could stop the run. Obviously, we had some success by running and being able to use play-action pass to kind of slow them down and spread the ball out. That was good, and our offense obviously improved more. So, we’re going to see if we can take from that level and continue to improve.
Q: It’s pretty rare in the league for a running back to have back-to-back 2,000-yards from scrimmage years in this league. It’s hard to do once, let alone back-to-back. What would Saquon have to do to maximize the chances of doing that?
A: It’s going to obviously come down to how many chances he gets to see the ball. But that’s strategy. What we’re going to try to do, I think, for the most part, and I think Saquon has said this, it’s nice to have the stats but he wants the wins. Obviously, we’re going to try to give him the ball, but the biggest thing we’re going to try to do is make sure we win the game. He understands that. He’s all for that. I feel confident when he gets his opportunities, he will play well, because I have a lot of confidence in our players. Then we’ll just see how it rolls. If they want to take him away and we win the game, I think everybody is happy, and that’s the key. If they’re playing it 50-50, I hope he’ll get the chance to show what he can do.
Q: Historically, teams that have a back like that make the playoffs, something like 70% of the time. Generally, it’s a recipe for some success.
A: That’s right. Most of the time, if you have a guy that can hurt the defense and allow you for explosion plays, obviously, you want to see him get his touches. But again, and Saquon’s with this, he’s said it numerous times, ‘Let’s find a way to win the game, Coach. I want to do my part, yes. I like the ball. Who wouldn’t like the ball? But, let’s win the game and then I’ll do what I need to do as my part to help contribute to that.’ Again, for him and the backs, make sure, ‘When I do touch it, am I good with my routes, and am I good at protecting the quarterback?’
Q: Can (Saquon) do it again (gain 2,000 yards from scrimmage)?
A: I have high expectations. I tell the players, ‘Go for the mountains. Go for it. Show that you can do it.’ I want the players to reach up as high as they can.
Q: What is Paul Perkins doing to earn reps in camp, and what can he do to make this team? He’s kind of competing with Rod Smith, Wayne Gallman…
A: I think that Paul Perkins, again, he’s got his legs, sea legs for lack of a better term, back up underneath him, because he was out for the last year. How you get a lot of reps is you get a chance to get in, you make sure you know what you’re doing when you get in, which has been a good thing. He’s been very good at that, and he’s got a chance to make some plays. As I’ve watched him, not just on running, I’ve watched him in pass protection. Is he in the right fits? I’ve watched him in his pass rush. Is he able to catch the ball, then make something happen? Any back that’s doing that is going to get their chance, but all of the guys are going to be rolling through in the preseason, because again, we are trying to find the best 53 (players) that will help us win. As long as they continue to perform, they’ll get a chance.